When I was 19, I studied for a semester in Costa Rica. It was a great experience; I lived with a family and took classes at the Universidad Nacional. Costa Rica was a magnet for gringos studying abroad, and I ended up getting involved with a kid named Mike from University of Oregon. While in college, he was also working as a piercing and tattoo artist. He himself was enthusiastically tatted and pierced (at a time where this was not so common). He had run for mayor of Eugene, Oregon, where he lived, when he was 18, not winning but getting a lot of media attention. I was enthralled.
Mike was leaving Costa Rica before I was; while I was taking real university classes in Sociology, he had just been doing a “learn Spanish” program that ended a few months earlier than the school semester. His plan was to travel up through Central America and Mexico, then cross the border and hitchhike back to Oregon. I, of course, was determined to go with him for asa much of the trip as I could.
I don’t remember the web of lies I told my homestay family and study abroad program coordinator, but I’m sure they were NOT as convinced as I was that this was an awesome idea. Mike and I bussed out of San Jose early one morning. That bus (and most of the rest of the buses we took on this adventure) were repurposed yellow school buses (AKA cheese buses) from the US. They were PACKED (3 to a seat, plus luggage, cargo, and the inevitable chickens).
It’s been a long time, and I don’t remember a ton of details, but here are some things that stood out in my memory:
- We packed light. I had my backpack that I carried to school, with maybe two outfits, a swimsuit, a sarong that we regularly used as a sheet and towel, and a toothbrush. I also had my Walkman (because it was 1996 after all) and a couple of tapes. Mike didn’t even have a backpack, more like a hobo bundle tied up with rope. He had one t-shirt (it was yellow), and when it ripped, he sewed it up with the only thread we had: mint dental floss. He would wear his boxers one day, turn them inside out for the second day, and wear his swim trunks so he could wash the boxers on the third day.
- We roughed it. I think Mike had $100 for the whole trip. We stayed in what we later realized were “by the hour” motels in Nicaragua, many of which had walls that didn’t even reach the ceiling. We would buy 10 mangos for a dollar and eat nothing else all day. We hitchhiked in the back of pickup trucks (“It’s the safest way! You’re just cargo!” Mike assured me) and drank tap water everywhere (I still credit that trip with the development of my iron stomach). I put my foot down at the idea of sleeping in a baseball diamond in Honduras (if I recall, we had to catch a 4am bus, so didn’t want to pay for a full night in a hotel).
- We saw a lot of stuff. I had grown up knowing tons of Salvadorean refugees, but never knew much about their devastating civil war until I visited the country. We stayed in places like Guatemala City and San Pedro Sula, Honduras, that were terrifying and sad and full of little shoeless kids eating the scraps off our plates. And we stayed in some places that still rank among the most beautiful I’ve ever seen: San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua, where Mike surfed while I read on the beach; Utila in Honduras, where I managed to break the budget to do a few dives; and Antigua, Guatemala, where we finally said goodbye. Mike headed north, I headed south, and we never saw each other again. The memory of this trip still makes me smile, though.